Why it's time to decolonialise fashion

Kimberly Jenkins is skeptical. The lecturer and founder of the Fashion and Race database, which is set to disrupt the perceived notion of Eurocentric fashion history, speaks to me a week after the murder of George Floyd and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. These tragedies have resulted in fashion brands expressing allyship with the Black Lives Matter movement with hugely varying results.

“I am waiting to see how the industry responds structurally,” she says. “Not superficially with black squares and grand, visionary promises.”

Two incidents last week suggest that the structures are still very much unchanged.

The first physical fashion show in six months, from Etro, had a racial controversy attached to it. The co-ed, socially distanced show held in the round of Milan’s Four Seasons hotel featured a blowsy, earth toned selection of clothes. Out of 80 invited guests, 24 were influencers. But as industry watchdog Diet Prada pointed out, with a shockingly white picture post, Bryan Boy was the sole non-white influencer present. There were no black faces to be seen. “Sick of it. This has to STOP,” wrote Naomi Campbell in the comment section.

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@etro influencer diversity check ✔️. Fashion is getting back to normal after the grinding halt of COVID. Etro’s Milan show is the first fashion show with a full audience. Around 80 attended, 24 of whom were influencers featured in portraits on Etro’s instagram story. Of those 24, there was only one influencer of color (@bryanboycom ). Several had come to Milan from other parts of Europe, so what’s the excuse for not having a single Black influencer? ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Etro’s team seems to have a different energy when it comes to model casting. Speaking to Vogue Runway, Veronica Etro emphasized the racial diversity of their catwalk “as if many different provenances were checking into the hotel, with their unique stories to tell and their wealth of memories and experience to share.” ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ The Italian brand has a history of white washing. Founded in 1968 as a textile house, they’ve made the paisley motif their signature. ELLE called the motif “synonymous” with the label. Paisley has a long design history, with shared roots in many parts of the world, though none of them are Italy. In the fashion world, it’s now more associated with an over-generalized “boho” aesthetic than with its origins in Persia and India. It’s one thing to appreciate the beautiful textiles of cultures the world over, its another to use them indiscriminately to the point of erasure. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Many looks used deadstock textiles from the houses’ archives, with everything made in Italy. Besides paisley (Persian), we also spotted Madras plaids (Indian), ikat and batik textiles (Indonesian), Navajo motifs (Native American), Kilim motifs (Turkish) and a “Native American” inspired fringed suede jacket, styled with preppy double-breasted blazers, Oxford shirts, and loafers in what Vogue called “an inventive jumble.” ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ If brands want to authentically communicate their values of diversity and inclusion, it needs to show at all levels, not just in model casting, which is basically standard now. Boardrooms, influencers, guests, and properly acknowledged cultural references are part of a picture that could reflect the diversity of inspirations incorporated into the brand’s “aesthetic”. #etro #etross21

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While last week’s racial profiling of Edward Enninful, British Vogue editor and one of the most visible black people in the fashion industry, struck a familiar but uneasy note for BAME members of the fashion community.

Enniful was told to “use the loading bay,” as he entered the Conde Nast building. And for those of us who’ve been followed around by a security guard whilst shopping, it was a familiar bit of racial rhetoric which says: “you are not allowed here, into this white space.”

“Black editors, designers, models, photographers and entrepreneurs have encountered uphill battles compared to their white peers in the fashion world,” says Jenkins. “They are the true survivors who have had to put up with insulting behaviour, dehumanising images and structural oppression within corporate work environments.”

Students conducting a visual analysis exercise for the course ‘Fashion and Race’ at Parsons School of Design

Students conducting a visual analysis exercise for the course ‘Fashion and Race’ at Parsons School of Design Photograph: PR Handout

Her Fashion and Race database, presents a new vision of fashion. A vision featuring long forgotten BAME designers and sartorial artefacts which tell an alternative history of fashion.

One section, Profiles, will feature fashion figures who broke barriers like Patrick Kelly and Elizabeth Keckly. “This will be quite an undertaking, because I want to broaden our reach looking to fellow contributors who can share names and histories of designers that showcase the Asian, Arab, Indigenous, Latinx experience and more,” she says.

Jenkins giving a lecture that juxtaposes two historically relevant covers of Vogue.

Jenkins giving a lecture that juxtaposes two historically relevant covers of Vogue. Photograph: Jacqueline Wayne Guite

While the ‘Objects That Matter’ section will feature items that tell this alternative history like the durag, turbans and different hairstyles. This parallel timeline will also present areas of historical racial oppression like offensive magazine cover and ads. “The point is to help the viewer see the full picture because often people read headlines about cultural appropriation but don’t know the full story.”

Jenkins says that she hopes the database will “provide a nurturing and supportive environment for (members of the BAME community) to help dismantle racial oppression.” It could not have come at a more important moment. “Ideally it will provide a beautiful patchwork of resilience and creativity from historical (BAME) designers, ultimately transforming fashion history as we know it.”


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